UCL Division of Biosciences


Some problematic press coverage

There is so much to choose from here, we have made a selection, and without much comment - we hope from all of the above that the problems with the quotes we have selected will be evident.  Since these are press reports we can't be sure if the confusion and errors came from BritainsDNA or were due to misunderstandings by the journalists - but in most cases the source of the problem is clear.

The Scotsman, 30 November 2011

"Remarkably it turned out that Naughtie's DNA marker was very similar to mine. But he is not a Borderer and hails from Banffshire. How did that work? It was in fact a near-perfect example of how history and genetics can inform each other. Like mine, his ancestors came from Southern Denmark and settled in the Borders. Macbeth became King of Scotland in 1040. King of Moray since 1032, he and his dynasty presented a real and continuing threat to that of Malcolm Canmore. His son, David I, came to the throne in 1124 and acted quickly to contain the restless north. Having held extensive lands in the Borders, he organised transplantations of loyal noblemen and their retainers to Moray. One of these groups almost certainly included Jim's ancestors."

The reader should wonder what role DNA could have in this story.

The Guardian, 14 April 2012

"DNA project reveals Tom Conti's Napoleonic blood and rich roots of Scotland's genetic legacy".

BritainsDNA often test celebrities, presumably seeking endorsements for their "project". It is not clear if the celebrities realise that this "project" is a commercial enterprise and that they are being used to provide media promotions. In this particular case the Guardian's Science Editor Robin McKie had his DNA tested by BritainsDNA and he returned the favour by writing an article to promote the company, focusing on the "remarkable claim" that the actor Tom Conti is related to Napoleon: "According to Moffat, Conti's DNA marker reveals his male lineage is Saracen in origin. His ancestors settled in Italy around the 10th century before one of them, Giovanni Buonaparte, settled in Corsica and founded the family branch that produced Napoleon… He [Conti] is clearly a close relative of Napoleon. Only DNA could have told that story." The "marker" in question is M34, the Y-chromosome marker that defines a sub-branch of haplogroup E known as E1b1b1b2a1 or E-M34 for short. A scientific paper has indeed been published purporting to show that Napoleon's Y-chromosome belongs to the E-M34 lineage. E-M34 is found today in Ethiopia, the Near East and in Europe but it dates back several thousand years. Conti and Napoleon are therefore not "close relatives". They merely share a Y-chromosome lineage in common with millions of other men. Saracen is the nickname that BritainsDNA give to E-M34 but their nicknames have no scientific basis and we cannot tell where E-M34 originated.

Moffat went on to tell the reporter that "Ancestors of the Bonaparte clan are rare in Britain". This is indeed true. It would in fact be quite astonishing to find any Bonaparte ancestors alive and well in Britain or in any other country - they would all have been dead and buried many years ago!

The Telegraph, 29 June 2012

"Scottish lecturer found to be 'grandfather of everyone in Britain'. A retired lecturer who took a DNA test to find out where his ancestors came from has been found to be directly descended from the first woman on earth, who lived 190,000 years ago."

There's just so much nonsense here it is difficult to know where to begin unpicking the errors.  Let's start with this: there's no such thing as the first woman on earth, every woman has a mother, and going back through the generations nobody can say at what point these maternal ancestors ceased to be women and were instead females of some pre-human species.

Southern Reporter, 9 July 2012

Mr Moffat explained: "Michael's Y DNA line from his father is from the Niger-Congo lineage which is most common in Cameroon, as well as across the rest of West Africa.  "His mum's line is Takruri, which is also West African - so yes, absolutely, Michael is descended from slaves." 

The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, and the premises are highly doubtful.

Daily Record, 6 October 2012

A collection of "unexpected" results from the ScotlandsDNA "project".

A retired Scottish woman Myra Craig is told by ScotlandsDNA that she has "the Yenesei DNA marker, which can be traced to Siberia". John Bishop, a retired headteacher, is told that he has the "Pretani DNA marker, who have been native to Great Britain for about 9000 years". These claims are based upon the imaginative and unscientific nicknames that ScotlandsDNA ascribes to the Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. "Yenesei" is their name for mtDNA haplogroup U4 and "Pretani" is their name for the Y-DNA haplogroup R1b-L21. We cannot infer the origins of these haplogroups by testing the DNA of living people.

Daily Mail, 18 February 2014

"I am Spartacus's cousin".

David Sykes, a retired policeman, had his Y-chromosome DNA tested with ScotlandsDNA and was told "it reveals Thracian ancestry, the same tribe as the famous freedom fighter Spartacus". This story appears to have been provided by David Sykes rather than ScotlandsDNA but demonstrates how the company's haplogroup stories mislead the consumer. The claim to Thracian ancestry appears to be based on the Thracian label that ScotlandsDNA assigns to haplogroup I2c, which is defined by the SNP marker L597/S333. It is of course not possible to infer the geographical origin of this Y-chromosome marker based purely on DNA samples provided by living males, let alone associate it with a distant historical figure.

Daily Mail, 19 February 2014

"A powerful new DNA testing technique has revealed the Scottish comedian is actually descended from a combination of Middle Eastern ancestors and Irish royalty."

An astute Daily Mail reader sums up the story nicely in a comment on their website: "What a stupid article... man has DNA test and discovers he has DISTANT genes from another part of the world....?....... I'm speechless at the banality of the obvious in this piece."

The finding of Middle Eastern ancestry is based on an analysis of autosomal DNA markers, but there is nothing unique about Rory Bremner's DNA. if you go back 500 or more years everyone will share markers with people from the Middle East, and indeed with just about every other population (see Ralph and Coop 2013). The claim that Rory Bremner is descended in the direct male line from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the fifth-century High King of Ireland, is based on the 2006 paper by Moore, McEvoy, Cape et al which found a prolific Y-chromosome signature that was particularly prevalent on the north-western coast of Ireland. However, the study used a very small sample size and was based on a limited number of Y-STRs. The date of the M222 SNP that defines this branch is the subject of debate but is now thought to predate Niall of the Nine Hostages. See our page on Dubious commercial claims for a more detailed critique of the Niall research.

It turns out that Rory Bremner is an old friend of Alistair Moffat's and supported his candidacy as Rector of St Andrew's University.

Daily Mail, 10 March 2014

"Almost one million Britons alive today are of Viking descent, which means one in 33 men can claim to be direct descendants of the Vikings."

Yet another PR stunt. The claim is based on a study of Y-chromosome DNA and the false assumption that "six DNA patterns" [haplogroups] are "associated with the Norse Vikings".   Pretty much all UK men are descended from Vikings -- and the same for UK women.

Scottish Daily Record, 5 July 2014

"A DNA expert has made the bold claim that ginger hair gene could die out if Scotland's climate improves."

This nonsensical story seemingly emanated from the Scottish Daily Record but was repeated without question by a number of national and international newspapers including The Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. The DNA expert making these claims was Dr [sic] Alistair Moffat, the Managing Director of BritainsDNA, who, as far as we are aware, does not have a PhD in any subject and has no qualifications in genetics. Most unusually the story included a quote from "another scientist, who asked not to be named because of the theoretical nature of the work". The story has been nicely debunked by a number of commenters:

- Relax, redheads. You're not about to die out by Adam Rutherford, The Guardian

- No, of course climate change won't make redheads go extinct by John Upton writing for the Grist

No, climate change is not driving redheads to extinction by Gail Sullivan, The Washington Post

- Redheads are here to stay despite what you may have heard Passnote no, 3347 in The Guardian

- No, Redheads are not in danger of going extinct by Tom Phillips, BuzzFeed

Scottish Herald, 24 November 2014

"The discovery of shared ancestral ties between men in Scotland and Wales is at the centre of a new theory that this one per cent of Welsh men are direct descendents of a small band of ancient Scottish aristocrats, who fled the Old Welsh-speaking kingdom of Strathclyde in the ninth century to escape a Viking invasion."

This creative piece of storytelling requires little comment but one wonders why a newspaper should have seen fit to publish fiction in the disguise of news.

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